Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Why you need to wear a PFD. No Really.

I've gone off on rants here more than once about wearing PFDs when paddling. I have had people tell me they don't perceive a risk, and so they choose not to wear one. The problem is that the perception of risk is easily missed, or misjudged. I've been paddling a kayak for well over 20 years, and have been teaching for close to 20. I will not get on the water without one. Here is why.

About a week ago I was scheduled for a "pre-season paddle training" for the school I teach for. We had a couple of new instructors we were on-boarding and it was a good time for all the instructors that work for this school to get together, paddle and make plans for the upcoming season. I teach at the equivalent of a satellite branch of the school and I had to travel the furthest and I arrived about 40 minutes early and saw that senior instructor was already there with a trailer carrying kayaks and SUPs. After I unloaded my kayak by the shoreline of the lake, I walked towards his truck. He got out of the truck and met me halfway. We immediately started discussing the weather.

It was still early, about 9:30 in the morning, but it was only 45 degrees and the water temperature was around 60. The wind was blowing at 15 and gusting to 20. We discussed the plan for the day and he confessed that he wasn't sure we would paddle. I told him "I already unloaded my boat, so even if we are off the clock I am going to paddle!" He chuckled and decided we would leave it up to the group to decide.

(For clarity I should point out I had no qualms about myself or any of the other instructors paddling in the conditions, but they were bad enough that I probably wouldn't have brought first time paddling students out on the water.)

As other instructors arrived we greeted each other and then headed to a picnic shelter to talk. We huddled next to each other for warmth as the wind kicked up. We talked about the new kayak and board fleet we were still expecting, and the plans for course types for the coming summer and fall. We talked about gear preferences and best practices for setting up your board or kayak for teaching. And we laughed a lot. I am fortunate to work with a really good crew of paddlers.

We finally took a vote and everyone agreed, we wanted to get on the water (but no one volunteered to demo wet exits for the new instructors. I intentionally left my drysuit home so I wouldn't get volun-told.) We all changed clothes and headed out onto the water. Five of us in kayaks and two others on Stand up Paddleboards.

We paddled into the wind, really doing little more than playing on the water. There was some discussion of technique, and recent training events. Lisa told me her planned race schedule - she is an accomplished long distance SUP racer. While we talked the wind pushed us back to our starting point and beyond, which is when I saw the only other people paddling. Two fisherman in separate canoes. Fisherman in North Carolina don't let weather get in the way of a good day fishing. They were about 150 yards away, and separated from each other by about 200 feet.

Our group was spread out in a line about 50 feet across. We had broken into small groups, Lisa and I were talking. My bow was pointed towards the fisherman, and Lisa's SUP was pointing away from them. As we talked I kept shifting my gaze from up at her (standing on her board she towered over me) and at the horizon which contained the fisherman and and a distant bridge. I looked back and forth between her and the horizon a couple of times as we talked. The next thing I remember was thinking that something didn't look right. It took me a second to realize the fisherman was no longer in his boat. Then I saw him in the water struggling. I said out loud "Is that guy drowning?" And before Lisa could turn to look, I saw another instructor, Ali, start sprinting to the fisherman, now swimmer. I immediately sprinted after her. As we approached I saw that he was bobbing in the water. Sometimes with his head above the water. sometimes submerged. It was clear he was struggling. Ali was on the other side of our group and one of the new instructors raced with her. As our paths to the same spot converged I realized she was closer and would get there first, I said "Ali, you got him?" to which she replied she did. I then edged to my right to get his boat, which the wind had pulled quite a distance away.

My boat was set up the way it is whenever I teach. My employer requires me to carry a throw bag, which lives on my back deck - I actually don't like the one they provide and I use one of my own. But on my front deck I have a deck sling, which has many uses, but can work as a short tow. When I got to the boat I connected its bow to one end of my short tow, and connected the other end to the hard point behind my cockpit. I turned around and paddled towards Ali and the swimmer.

I immediately saw a couple of things. Lisa was on scene with her paddle board. And they had him sitting side saddle on her board. (It took me three days to realize how quickly she got to the scene. She was facing the wrong way when I started sprinting, and I would be surprised if I spent more than 30 seconds setting up the tow. The woman is really fast on a board!)

As I approached the scene, the swimmers friend has just arrived, I told him I was going to slide my bow in between him and Lisa's board. Ali was on the other side of Lisa's board. I also asked Lisa to turn the swimmer so he was facing her and straddling her board. I waited a beat to see what else was going on. Here is what I was thinking:

Because of my background as a Paramedic and a wilderness medicine instructor I knew that we needed to do a full patient assessment on the swimmer. But all of the people responding were medically certified and outstanding leaders. I had to make sure that no one was already in the process of doing one. I didn't want to step on any toes. When I saw that no one was in process I automatically started. I have to stress it is nothing more than training. 5 years on an ambulance, running 7 to 15 patients a day, plus working in the outdoors, and training... always training. A patient assessment is something that is pretty much ingrained in my head.

I won't run through everything I did, but I will point out my concerns. The swimmer, now patient was wearing sweat pants, a cotton t-shirt and a flannel shirt over that. He wasn't wearing a PFD. My primary concerns were hypothermia, and injuries associated with the fall. I questioned him a couple of times, a couple of different ways to confirm he didn't hit the boat when fell in or hit anything once he was in the water. Once I was sure there was no actual injury I turned my attention to the hypothermia. We moved him into his boat from Lisa's board and in the process I saw the six pack of beer and the open beer bottle in his boat. About a third of the beer was gone from the bottle, but I couldn't tell if it was his first. His friend produced a PFD for him to wear which I asked him to put on, stating that it would keep him warm, and should he end up back in the water it would protect him. I asked if he was okay paddling back to the marina and he stated that he had a motor. Because my primary concern was hypothermia I was content to let him and his friend motor back to the marina which would be faster than we could paddle. We suggested that he get out of his wet clothes and into something warm. Once we were ashore about 20 minutes later I checked on him again to make sure he was okay. He confessed that he had vomited a fair amount of the lake up. I told him if he had any pain, or difficulty breathing to go to urgent care or call 911.

The instructors debriefed the situation quickly on the water and then we debriefed it in earnest on land in a group.

This guy who was very thankful for our help, committed what I like to think of as the trifecta of stupid mistakes. No PFD. Dressed inappropriately for the conditions, and then he added alcohol to the mix.

His friend didn't hear him go into the water, the friend was alerted by people on land. If we hadn't been there, if we had decided we didn't want to paddle because it was cold and windy, this guy was dead. It was that simple. If Ali had gotten to him 15 seconds later he would have been unconscious. 30 seconds later he would have submerged for the last time. A PFD would have solved the problem immediately. If he had been wearing a PFD he would have been able to get back to his boat. It would have been an annoyance. a ruined fishing day. Instead, he almost died. He didn't perceive the risk. When your experience - or lack thereof - doesn't let you see the risk, or your ego doesn't let you see the risk, or your vanity doesn't let you see the risk it is far easier for something like this to happen.

As we debriefed I told my fellow instructors that I am a fan of the concept that people don't generally die in the outdoors by repelling off the end of their rope, or stepping off a cliff or something else dramatic like that (those things do happen, but that isn't normally how people die.) People die in the outdoors because the make a mistake and don't realize it. And then an hour or a day later that mistake comes back to bite them in the ass. I feel that people like this are already dead when they decide not to put on a PFD. But it takes a few hours for it to actually happen. You can fight it, and if you get lucky you can pull yourself back from the mistake you made. But sometimes you can't.

If you are a paddler, please wear a PFD, even if you don't perceive the risk.

Ali also wrote about this event, and you can read her much more detailed account here.